Karla Emaus admitted dumping her newborn’s body in a river. But a Chicago judge acquitted the 35-year-old woman after her attorneys argued that the baby could have been born dead. The Chicago Tribune says the trial was part of a legal battle being fought nationwide–and soon to be heard by the Illinois Supreme Court–over how to prove that a newborn was killed and when a baby is considered born. Prosecutors see dozens of such cases every year and view many as homicides. Defense attorneys often counter with a “stillborn defense,” arguing that the baby was born dead or died of natural causes shortly after birth.
In Illinois, the state supreme court hears arguments this fall in the case of a woman who was twice convicted of killing her newborn and dumping him in a stream behind her house. Prosecutors say a court ruling overturning her second conviction gives pregnant women “literally a road map for getting away with murder.”
Cases keep coming up despite “safe haven” laws in Illinois and other states that promise pregnant women immunity from prosecution if they surrender newborns to hospitals or fire stations. Many are teenage mothers accused of hiding their pregnancies from parents and friends, then discarding or killing their babies in a panicky moment after birth. Others are older women trying to hide pregnancies from a husband or boyfriend who is not the father.
The “stillborn defense” often is an excuse, says Laura Rogers of the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. “What else are you going to say? `I didn’t want it. It was crying, so I threw it in the trash bin’? You say it was born dead.”